Three or so weeks ago I wrote a piece on ‘the good society’, setting out what I thought were the primary values that would inform such a blessed state. It was picked up on On Line Opinion, where commenters battled away with each other. Before the final duel began one commenter, Ludwig, wrote that I had missed something really important:
This is to live sustainably. To live well within our means. To keep the scale of everything well within the ability of our resource base to provide not only all the necessities for life but the necessities for a high quality of life, with a big safety margin. If we don’t do this, we will face all manner of problems. The rule of law will be badly eroded. The rich, powerful and ruthless will rule the roost. There will be massive real poverty. There will be enormous civil strife. A good society needs a government that is independent of the enormous influences that drive it to continuously expand and become less sustainable, especially when vital resources such as water are already highly overutilised and stressed right out.
I replied that it was a good point, but that humanity seemed to have thrived when resources were stressed, and gave some examples (the transition from wood to coal and iron, the end of the horse-manure scare, the transition from copper to silicon fibre). I said that I thought living sustainably was the sort of thing one might elect to try to do, (always bearing in mind that if I run a petrol-engined car, it’s not easy to run it sustainably), but for whole societies that aim seemed fanciful to me.
Ludwig stuck to his guns.
It is of vital importance in Australia that we steer ourselves in the direction of sustainability, given how rampantly we are going in the opposite direction. Surely you must agree that we should at least be striving to NOT further stress already highly stressed resources. Water being our prime concern.
We should also realise that the current state of political discontent is very largely due to the LIE that we need evermore growth and the FAILURE of this basic dictum perpetrated by our politicians of all persuasions over many years to address all the issues that this growth has been supposed to address. Striving to live sustainably is surely THE most fundamental principle for building a better society. If we don’t do this a whole range of stresses will manifest themselves, and the ugly side of the human condition will come to the fore.
I responded that I would give further thought to the issue in another post, which is this one. Ludwig’s argument here is a familiar one, and to a degree I think we are doing what he wants. But the main weapon we use is the price mechanism. As resources diminish, or the supply of something is inadequate for whatever reason, its price goes up. As that happens, people get into substitution, or give up using the resource, while others see an opportunity to develop something that is actually better. It is not obvious what the innovation will be. One example is the replacement of the iron lung by the Salk vaccine in the treatment of poliomyelitis.
My reading of Ludwig’s argument is that he sees the need for government to ‘steer’ us via the regulated rationing of the resource, where it is capable of being rationed. On the whole I think that is a bad method, and sensible only in the context of war, where everybody is expected to make a sacrifice, and where many resources are needed for the ‘war effort’. The rationing of water in the Murray-Darling system does not seem to me to have been either effective or efficient, and we have no capacity to foresee when the next flood or drought will be.
And growth is not simply what politicians talk about, though Sir John McEwen loved to use the word back in the 1960s. Our population is growing steadily every year, and we seem perpetually short of about 350,000 dwellings. Our net reproduction rate (the number of daughters reaching reproductive age per woman) was in 2012 at less than replacement (0.929), so our growth is mostly through immigration. The immigration target for the current year is about 215,000, of which 129,000 are to be skilled workers, 61,000 family members of Australian citizens, while 24,000 are in the humanitarian category.
Each of these categories has a rationale, and while one could tweak the proportions I can’t see anyone in office wanting to end any of the categories. On the face of it, Australia has done very well in the last sixty years, through growth, and we have not run out of anything. Yes, there are shortages from time to time, but we have learned how to deal with them. I would agree that faced with World War Three or some other catastrophe, our society would find it very hard to deal with organising its resources. But I see no need to act as though WW III is around the corner.
I’ve written before somewhere that ‘sustainability’ is a slippery concept, and this present debate has only increased my feeling that it would be preferable to talk about not ‘wasting’ resources. Like AGW, ‘sustainability’ can all too easily acquire a religious tone.